Charles Clarke: Blair's bruiser takes the punches

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Charles Clarke is built for political battle. By quite a margin he is the largest cabinet minister, big, burly and seemingly ready for a fight. Since joining the Cabinet after the last election the heavyweight has battled away with an unusual intensity, at the centre of highly charged political storms. Now almost through no fault of his own he has found himself in the middle of the most wildly oscillating tempest of the lot, a conflict between security and liberty, Commons and Lords. If it had not been for the confused passions of David Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn he would have been elsewhere. But that has been his ministerial destiny, fighting his corner with nerves jangling.

Before his latest thorny brief at the Home Office Charles Clarke was the Secretary of State for Education who had the task of persuading reluctant Labour MPs to support top-up fees for universities. A Commons defeat on the policy would have fatally undermined the authority of Tony Blair. That arduous and tense assignment was a piece of cake compared with the past two weeks when Mr Clarke has faced the ferocious opposition of many MPs, the House of Lords and much of the media over his plans to place terror suspects under house arrest. There have been questions about Mr Clarke's competence as a result of the parliamentary chaos. They were relatively mild compared with accusations from political opponents that he had failed to master his brief. The bruiser has taken some punches in recent parliamentary exchanges.

Charles Clarke has been in training for much of his political life. He knows what it is like to take a punch or two, and a knockout blow. In the 1980s he was Neil Kinnock's chief of staff. For nine traumatic years the two of them worked closely as Mr Kinnock sought and failed to become prime minister. Recently Mr Kinnock described what united the small group of Kinnockites in his office: "We all went through bloody hell and it toughens you up." Mr Clarke had a low media profile then, exercising pivotal influence in the background, a stern and forbidding figure as Labour made its erratic recovery.

Much has been written about the blow for Neil Kinnock as Labour lost again in 1992. Charles Clarke also suffered. He would have been Mr Kinnock's chief of staff in Downing Street. Instead he formed a public affairs management consultancy, not quite the same as ruling the country. Mr Clarke was not to know then that he would become an MP five years later and soon be a minister in a landslide Labour government. In 1992 all those political battles had been fought seemingly without reward.

Yet those who know Charles Clarke well point out he is not especially pugnacious. Most of the time as a minister Mr Clarke has become engaged in political warfare because he had no choice in the matter. There was an unavoidable war to fight. Last December, within 48 hours of Mr Clarke becoming Home Secretary, the Law Lords delivered their damning verdict on the Government's original plans for suspected terrorists. One of the senior lawyers in the Home Office gave their assessment to the new and inexperienced Home Secretary: "We're fucked!" Mr Clarke has been on the defensive ever since. Similarly when Mr Clarke became Education Secretary, Mr Blair had already agreed that universities needed more cash. Any solution would have provoked a political row.

What is less well known is the astute, almost conciliatory way in which he seeks to smooth over controversial issues. Mr Clarke has a distinctive and highly effective style. As a minister he tends to adopt or inherit highly charged policies. But before a row erupts he announces that he will listen extremely carefully to dissenters in an attempt to reach an agreement. He makes sure the media is kept well informed of what he is doing. At some stage he makes a concession or two. The dissenters are usually grateful and back the policy that they had previously loathed.

The parliamentary chaos of the past fortnight has not undermined his authority as a consensual minister, at least in the view of most Labour MPs. Most of them still praise him for making concessions and listening to their concerns. Significantly quite a few still believe that Mr Clarke is a liberal who is privately doubtful about some of Tony Blair's authoritarian instincts. This is confirmed by a private view of another senior minister who says that the biggest divide in the Cabinet is not between Blairites and Brownites, but between liberals and authoritarians. Unhesitatingly the minister places Mr Clarke on the liberal wing.

On several issues Mr Clarke has given a nod and a wink that he is on a different part of the political spectrum to the ultra Blairites. At the end of last year on the BBC Today programme Mr Clarke dared to attack Prince Charles who had criticised some schools for raising unrealistic expectations in their pupils. Mr Clarke tried to contain himself, but took some delight in his failure to do so: "As I say, I don't want to get in a tangle with the Prince of Wales. I decided before coming on to your programme this morning that I would try to discipline myself about his remarks... To be quite frank, I think he is very old-fashioned and out of time, and doesn't actually understand what is going on in the British education system at the moment. And I think that he should think carefully before intervening in that debate. That's what I really think."

This is a classic Clarke quote, double-plated candour in which he admits to seeking a disciplined silence on the issue and a second later speaks very loudly on it. Conveniently most Labour Party supporters would have cheered at the apparent breakdown of his self-discipline.

Mr Clarke's candour was motivated by more than political positioning. Since joining the Cabinet he has tried to encourage a more mature political debate in the media. He regarded this as a key objective during his brief period as Labour's first party chairman. At times some in the media hailed him for his intelligent approach. But at other times Mr Clarke has had a stormy relationship with journalists. He is often heard berating Today presenters, and like many cabinet ministers is known to have lost patience with that particular programme. But he has had clashes with other journalists too. On one occasion when he was party chairman he hosted a small reception for journalists aimed at smoothing relations. A press officer told journalists, "Charles is in a good mood." Mr Clarke was next seen berating a reporter for misrepresenting him. The terrified journalist left wondering what it would be like to meet Mr Clarke in a bad mood.

Some ministers who have worked with him in government say that Mr Clarke can be surprisingly nervy at times, worrying about his own position and performance. Perhaps this relates to his early relationship with the Blairite court. In 1994 when Mr Blair stood for the leadership, Mr Clarke phoned his office to offer help. He got no reply and assumed that those connected with Neil Kinnock in the dark 1980s had been ostracised. Meanwhile his relationship with Gordon Brown was virtually destroyed when Mr Clarke told a journalist that Mr Brown would never be leader of the party. He thought his comments were off the record, but they were published to the fury of the Brown camp. Some in Downing Street compare him unfavourably to the Health Secretary, John Reid, their current pin-up. "John delivers. Charles doesn't always do so," was how one Blair ally put it.

Sometimes Mr Clarke's edginess is seen in public. During one of the recent heated debates on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill Mr Clarke moaned that he "had been patronised by lawyers" throughout his career. He was responding to suggestions from some MPs who were also lawyers that Mr Clarke had not fully mastered his brief.

Most of the time, though, Mr Clarke seems more at ease with power than a lot of his colleagues who served their political apprenticeships during the 18 years in opposition. His father, Sir Richard "Otto" Clarke, was a highly successful senior civil servant, serving in the Treasury and rising to become a permanent secretary at the Department of Aviation in the mid 1960s. Charles Clarke had a privileged education at the private school of Highgate in north London before attending Cambridge University. Within four years of completing his stint as president of the National Union of Students he became a researcher for Neil Kinnock. Two years later Mr Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party.

It is a reflection of Mr Clarke's deep roots in the Labour Party that no questions were raised about his private education when he became Education Secretary. His own two sons are educated in state schools in Norwich. When he became MP the family decided to move to the constituency. He spends most of the week in London immersed in work, but is ruthless about heading for the constituency at the earliest opportunity. In the evenings he is known to enjoy a drink or two, but quite often the bottle of wine is opened in the context of work, unwinding with colleagues.

There has been some speculation that Clarke will be a future leadership candidate. As matters stand he would not have a chance of defeating Gordon Brown. Mr Clarke's best long-term hope is for a prominent position in a Brown cabinet. Mr Brown's allies cite Mr Clarke as a minister with whom the Chancellor can work in spite of the tensions between them.

Mr Clarke is 54, only slightly older than Mr Brown and Mr Blair. He seems older. It is as if he been around for longer, which he has in a way, fighting those early battles with Mr Kinnock. Probably the best he can hope for is the post of chancellor or foreign secretary, but that would be a significant achievement for a Home Secretary rubbing his wounds at the end of an extraordinary pre-election row, and who after the election defeat in 1992 must have wondered fleetingly whether he and the Labour Party would ever win again.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born 21 September 1950 in London.

Family Married Carol Pearson in 1984. Two sons.

Education Highgate School, north London; Kings College Cambridge, read economics and mathematics; president National Union of Students 1975-1977.

Career 1980-86 councillor, London Borough of Hackney; 1981 researcher in the office of Labour leader Neil Kinnock; 1983-1992 chief of staff to Neil Kinnock; 1992-97 head of a public affairs consultancy; 1997 elected MP for Norwich South; 1998-99 parliamentary under-secretary of state for school standards; 1999-2001 minister of state, Home Office; 2001 chairman of the Labour Party; 2002 Secretary of State for Education; 2004 Home Secretary

He says... "It would be the gravest dereliction of duty to wait until we have suffered a terrorist outrage here." - defending his anti-terror bill

"We can't all be born to be king." - on Prince Charles's complaint that some people have ambitions beyond their qualifications

They say... "Despite his appearance he is a child of privilege. Like Prince Charles, he was privately educated." - columnist Minette Martin

"(Clarke) is emerging as one of the weakest home secretaries of modern times. He has capitulated to the dark forces who do not care a cat's whisker for civil liberty." - journalist Simon Jenkins

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